Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Hamas elected in secret a hardline member of the Palestinian Islamist movement's armed wing as its new Gaza leader on Monday, indicating a tougher stand against longtime adversary Israel.
Yahya Sinwar was elected to head the Hamas political office in the Gaza Strip, officials from the party said on condition of anonymity.
An influential military figure, Sinwar represents for some the hardest line within the Islamist movement which has fought three wars against Israel since 2008.
He will succeed politician Ismail Haniya and becomes the second most important figure in the party after Khaled Meshaal.
Sinwar was held in Israeli jail for more than 20 years until 2011, when he was released along with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured five years earlier.
He has since become a senior figure in the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing.
In September 2015, Sinwar's name was added to the US terrorism blacklist alongside two other Qassam members.
Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political analyst in Gaza, said the appointment showed the military wing was asserting its dominance in Hamas.
Israel's foreign ministry and prime minister's office declined to comment, but the defence ministry body responsible for the Palestinian territories labelled him the head of Hamas's "radical camp".
- Secretive -
A graduate in Arabic, Sinwar was born in the Khan Younis refugee camp of southern Gaza in 1962 and founded "Majd," one of Hamas's intelligence services.
In 1988, he was arrested by Israel for "terrorist activity" and eventually sentenced to four life sentences.
Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, two years after Israel pulled its forces out but Sinwar remained in jail for another four years.
He was released in October 2011 as part of a mammoth deal for Shalit, who was captured in 2006.
Washington accuses Sinwar of pushing for kidnapping more Israeli soldiers as a bargaining chip for Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas currently claims to be holding four Israelis in captivity in Gaza, though Israel says the two soldiers among them were killed in the 2014 war.
After his release from jail, Sinwar initially made a number of public appearances.
Later, however, he disappeared from public view and was presented in Hamas media as the commander of Qassam's elite units.
On Monday, he seemed set to step back into the public sphere at a time when Hamas has been holding elections.
The election process, ongoing for months, is shrouded in mystery and it was unclear how Sinwar was appointed and if and when other appointments will be announced.
There was no reference to his appointment on the Hamas website Monday afternoon.
Haniya is seen by many observers as the most likely successor to Hamas's overall leader Meshaal, who currently lives in exile.
Sinwar, however, could have significant freedom inside Gaza.
- 'Escalation' -
Both Palestinian and Israeli analysts said the appointment could make another conflict between the two sides more likely.
"I think it is an indication that we might see an escalation with the Israeli occupation in the coming stage," said Abu Saada, the Gaza analyst.
"Sinwar is known to not accept any facilitation that eases the tense situation with the occupation," Abu Saada said.
"We might see in the coming stage further provocations against Israel and violent responses against Gaza."
Israel last year appointed hardline rightwinger Avigdor Lieberman as its defence minister.
After his appointment, he warned the next war with Gaza would be the last as "we will completely destroy them".
Kobi Michael, an analyst and former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel's strategic affairs ministry, said the appointment would alarm Israeli politicians.
"He represents the most radical and extreme line of Hamas," he told reporters. "Sinwar believes in armed resistance. He doesn't believe in any sort of cooperation with Israel."
In the 2014 war, 2,251 Palestinians and 74 Israelis died.
The Jewish state maintains a crippling blockade on Gaza which it says is necessary to restrict Hamas's ability to rearm but which the UN says amounts to collective punishment.